One of the key things to enjoying a successful vacation with kids is to ensure that they are properly entertained. Now, some will say, “if your kids are too young to be entertained by the sights, then maybe you shouldn’t be taking them on a vacation to [insert amazing, exotic and/or culture-rich location here]!” I get this comment ALL the time on message boards and similar forums. It seems to be the go-to for many, this idea that in order for my child to get anything out of traveling with me, he or she must be old enough to “appreciate” the vacation in the manner that they deem of high enough caliber to make the vacation “worth it” for us all. And on the one hand, those comments raise my hackles, but on the other, I understand that to some people, travel is an infrequent thing, and every trip has to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For me, a self-diagnosed travel addict, I don’t visit anywhere in the world without the confidence that someday I will make it back there again.
I am also a working mom, who works an average of 45 hours a week, and who cherishes every minute that I get to spend with my daughter and my stepson. So, when vacation time comes around, I truly cannot bear the idea of not taking my kids (or at the very least, my daughter, since my stepson’s vacation time is shared with his mother that generally only has vacation time and some weekends with him as she moved out of state several years ago). So, in order to take my kids with me, and also be able to enjoy plane, train and automobile rides, sight seeing and lingering meals, I bring along the entertainment necessary to keep them both happy!
The teenager is easy when it comes to entertainment – computer, Nintendo DS and cell phone, and he is good to go. The baby-turned-toddler, however, takes a little bit more creativity to keep entertained. Here are some of my favorite travel toys to keep my toddler smiling and myself sane:
Melissa and Doug Water Wow
I honestly think that Melissa and Doug will be one of the defining toy-makers of my daughter’s generation. They have a huge range of toys and puzzles for all ages, with a great focus on quality, on education and on imaginative play. With all the Melissa and Doug has to offer, it is a bit laughable that one of my favorite items made by them is one of their least expensive items.
The Water Wow series of “paint” books (which you can find here) are truly a godsend when traveling – or even when just heading out to dinner. They are entertaining and completely mess free! They are reusable paint pads that use water to bring the colors and images forward. The best way to describe how they work is an explanation that my husband recently gave: They function much in the same way that a wet T-shirt contest does – once you get it wet, the top layer becomes see-through!
These are inexpensive and provide entertainment time and time over – I have at least 8 or 10 of them floating around in my house and as I am in the midst of packing for another trip, several of them will be making their way into my carry-on bag soon!
Books, Books and More Books
I don’t think there is a Mom out there that doesn’t have at least one favorite book in her purse or diaper bag! When I am traveling, I always carry a few favorites that I can either read to my daughter, or just let her flip through herself.
In addition to a few favorite stories, I recommend bringing a few books that can engage your child in a bit of independent play. There is something about the fun of “lift the flap” books that seems to carry well through several stages of development. The other great thing is that if your child has a favorite character or favorite genres, there is no doubt a flap book out there to meet your needs! Here are a few of my favorites:
I don’t think I’ll ever really understand the joy that kids find in stickers. I mean, I am sure that I loved stickers at one point too, but as an adult, they feel a bit like a nuisance – that is, until you become a parent, at which point you love the simple joy that kids get from something as easy to carry and as easy to obtain as stickers.
I learned of my daughter’s love for sticker books, in particular, a bit by accident when I purchased this Moana coloring book for her that happened to contain several pages of stickers.
She immediately wanted me to take the stickers off the page so she could stick them places. It only took a few times playing with the book to realize that there are actual spots that the stickers belong on the story pages, and at that point she was IN LOVE! She will sit quietly and flip through the pages until she finds the shape that she is looking for to match to her sticker.
There are a variety of different kinds of sticker books out there – some with blank backgrounds to be decorated, some with specific images to match, and others that function similar to paper dolls, where you dress up the characters in various outfits. Play around with them and see which kids your kids respond to most!
Much like stickers, bubbles are another thing that kids just inexplicably love. Bubbles are of course not something that can help entertain your child while you are on your way to your destination, but when battling jet-lag and trying to get your child the sunshine and fresh air that are most helpful to adjusting to a new time-zone, bubbles are a great way to get them running around in the park!
On our recent trip to Ireland, my Aunt surprised us with this great bubble set-up that is actually no-spill! I am honestly not even sure how it works, but now that my daughter is at the “I’ll do it myself” stage, it is great to be able to hand her over the bubbles without the certain knowledge that there will be a big soapy puddle at her feet and an empty bubble container in her hand within 4 minutes!
Toy Cell Phones
Raise your hand if your child is obsessed with your cell phone! Even from just a few months old, little ones have an instant affinity for our phones – and why not? They see them in Mommy and Daddy’s hands all the time, so they must be something exciting! And this is not a critique – parents shouldn’t feel guilty that their kids see them use their phones so often! Using your phone a lot doesn’t mean you are ignoring your child – in fact, it may mean that you are paying a lot of attention to your child, from charting their feedings in a handy app, to googling about the fear of the moment, to using your phone to take pictures of your little one through all stages of development, these phones are just a part of our modern parenting life.
But, while my phone may be a coveted item to my child, it is also a pretty important and often expensive item that I don’t really want little hands playing with. The balance that I have tried to strike is to stock a few toy cell phones in the house and bring one or two on our trips as entertainment on the plane, in the car, or just out and about. Now, kids are far smarter than we sometimes give them credit for, and they know the difference between a toy and the real deal. They will ALWAYS prefer the real cell phone to the fake one, but if you get one with a few bells and whistles and keep your own phone out of their sight, you can generally get them engaged pretty easily with some of these faux phones:
Once your child is old enough to play with small figures, it is a great idea to order some figurines or action figures of their favorite characters. These are generally pretty easy to travel with and if you have a few different characters, they can be a great distraction.
The first figurines that came with us on a journey were Elmo characters, then we moved on to Mickey and Minnie, and then to Moana. I have already packed some Belle, Ariel and Elsa figurines for our upcoming trip that I will be happy to surprise our daughter with at some point when we need something new in rotation. The bonus is that since I have packed them in their boxes, I will have some room to bring back some souvenirs after the boxes are discarded!
So, I didn’t set out for this post to be a giant Amazon add, but you are probably finding that all of the product links are to Amazon. Honestly, my biggest recommendation to parents is to get an Amazon Prime membership. Sure they keep increasing the prices every year, but so far, it is truly worth every penny. For starters, ordering last-minute items with free 2-day shipping (or sometimes even free 1-day shipping!) is part of my travel-process! I have ordered more than one of the items above in just a few days before taking off, and it is a huge comfort to my busy life to have the option for last-minute trip shopping while at home, or even while on my commute (thank you, Amazon Shopping App!).
The other great thing about a Prime membership is that it gives you access to a great selection of movies and TV shows for free! And, if you have a tablet, you can often download a lot of these programs to utilize while traveling. Now, I am pretty cautious to ensure that I am not creating a screen junkie, but there are times, especially like while trying to get through a late dinner or the last hours of a trans-Atlantic flight, when you just need to pull out the big guns!
Just know that you will need to have a thicker skin as the people around you don’t know your story and other parents LOVE to judge. You are ok, and your decisions are your own. Do whatever works for you and don’t look back!
If you are in the market for a tablet for your child’s use, I definitely recommend the Kindle Fire. My husband and I both have iPads that we love, and that we really don’t want to see destroyed by our daughter, and she has her own little Kindle Fire in a kid-friendly case that we don’t generally have to worry as much about. Just make sure that if you are traveling out of the country, you download the movies and shows that you may want for your child before you leave, as many of them are not available abroad. Generally if they are downloaded in advance, however, they will work on the device if the Wifi is turned off.
And finally, when in doubt, turn anything you have into a toy for your child! When I am traveling, I almost always have a pen and small notebook on me, and I have found this to be a huge life-saver in some situations. I’ll also pull old business cards out of my wallet, or old receipts and let my daughter scribble all over them. You can also empty an old change purse out and let your child play with the zipper, or let them play with your mirror or makeup brushes, or really anything you have that won’t be a danger or a mess!